Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Officially in Love With Laos - Vientienne

The love affair with Laos continues...

Two seconds after stepping onto the streets of Vientienne I heard my name. Turning around, I saw that it was one of the guys I had met in Vietnam who had formed a large group of travelers. They had decided to rent bikes the next day to travel 30 km outside the city to Buddha Park. Having dubbed themselves the TITs (Ten Independent Travelers), I was allowed to join the group because one of the Swedish guys had bailed due to stomach illness. So I was primarily invited to join them because NITs (Nine Independent Travelers) isn't as funny as TITs.

The bike ride was difficult, it was hot and 30 km is actually quite far, but the park was quirky and worth the ride. Buddha Park is filled with strange statues, including buddhas and a giant pumpkin, which you enter through a giant Hellmouth. Inside the pumpkin, visitors are greeted to the artist's vision of Hell. It was weird, but somehow after some of the things I have seen on this trip, it didn't seem so strange.

Three of the guys bailed on the way home, strapping their bikes to the roof of a tuk-tuk. So the rest of us began biking the 30 km home. About 5 km into the ride we heard loud music. Passing several local village homes, we saw money trees and were greeted by people dancing, singing and waving madly. Each family motioned us to stop and we finally pulled over at one home. Immediately I was handed a beer Lao and the family surrounded us, speaking excitedly in Laos. No one spoke English, but we understood that it was some type of local festival and everyone was quite drunk. I spent the next hour and a half surrounded by drunk Loas men trying to understand what was going on, but having the best time of my trip.

At the first home we visited, one man dressed in a cowboy hat and wearing broken sunglasses stumbled around. Another wore a black t-shirt, a US bandana and aviator sunglasses, and was trying to prove to us how much he could drink by slamming back large glasses of beer back-to-back. A skinny man carrying a toy gun, covered in flour and lipstick could only explain to us in English that this was a special festival for their village. Being the only girl from our group at this house, every two seconds someone from the family grabbed me and insisted that I take a photo with them. We later learned that this was the first time non-Laos people had ever been to their house.

Moving on to another Laos house, a large drunken jam session was already underway. The band consisted of a drummer wearing a construction hat, a topless fat man with crazy hair walking around pounding a stick on the ground, a zen-like guitar player, several beret-wearing triangle players, some random backup singers and a lead singer - the drunkest of the lot - wearing a motorcycle crash helmet, a black leather motorcylce jacket and crooked sunglasses who only seemed to be able to drunkenly sing "I looooove youuuuu!!" in English. More beer was passed around and bongo drums were shared. At some point men appeared wearing women's clothing and makeup. All of the families we visited were obviously incredibly poor, but were some of the kindess, more generous hosts I have ever encountered.

With the sun setting and a 25 km bike ride still ahead of us, three of us set out on bike, leaving four behind (we later learned that they were paraded around town, prayed at the temple and took a tuk-tuk home). Deciding to try a shortcut, we drove down a crazy dirt road where more villagers screamed at us to join them. Along the way we passed huge emerald rice paddies, small shacks and dirty kids who waved at us and ran after our bikes. At one point the houses disappeared, the road narrowed and I was worried that we were lost. Fortunately we were saved by a French-speaking Laos Catholic nun in a pick-up truck who gave us an overly-detailed map of the ride back to Vientienne, which included several unnecessary landmarks, including where she lived and where the church was. Still, it got us home.

Arriving into town as the sun was setting, we pulled into our hotel next to the National Laos Stadium just in time to catch the Laos soccer league playing. The game was entertaining and no one charged us anything to watch, even though the stadium was full. At one point, one of the goalkeepers got nailed in the groin with the ball and dropped to the ground in pain. The crowd went nuts with laughter and it was another five minutes before they had all quiteted down and started to pay attention to the game again. The soccer was lousy, but it was a great way to end the day.

Despite a 60 km bike ride in 30+ degrees heat, the bike to Buddha Park was one of the best days of my trip. I am continuing to fall deeper and deeper in love with Laos.


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